Haunted Battlefields: The Ghosts of South Mountain

by JoHarrington

Do American Civil War soldiers still fight on South Mountain? Their ghosts have been seen, felt and heard upon those once treacherous slopes.

Right at the start of the Maryland Campaign, the clashes on South Mountain were amongst the first fought on Union soil. Over 5000 people were killed, injured or went missing in the intense fighting.

But those stories were quickly over-shadowed by Antietam, a couple of days later and just a few miles up the road. It was South Mountain which allowed Antietam to happen, yet it seems destined to become a mere footnote in history.

Not so for the people who live there today. They have no option but to remember. The ghosts of Confederate and Union soldiers alike do not rest easy in their makeshift graves.

The Battle for Turner's Gap

It was the main route from Baltimore to the Washington DC state line. Both sides wanted control of the Old National Pike through Turner's Gap.

Two long rows of gunmen faced one another, their ranks stretching out across the field.  Musket fire flashed and people fell. 

You could hear more than you could see.  The mists were heavy and men disappeared into it.  At first in sharp detail, then as silhouette, before the fog swallowed them whole. 

Yet the noise went on.  The whinny of horses, the screaming of the injured, the rebel yell.  Those sounds filled the hillside.  Those sounds seemed somehow more terrifying than even the grim, determined faces staring out over the gun barrels.  Another musket shot, close at hand this time, echoed the many more fired out of sight. 

A whole group of men fell at once, their fellows standing stranded amidst their anguished cries.  It was terrible.  It was ugly.  It was happening all around with no escape.

But this wasn't September 14th 1862.  It was the late 19th century; and the two men witnessing it were staying in the South Mountain House.  They'd both been disturbed from their slumber by the sounds and smells of this.  They'd climbed up into the home's observatory in the dead of night.  All they saw were the ghosts outside.  Everywhere.  Re-enacting that dread day and falling again under it.

The private residence was around during the Civil War, when it had been called the South Mountain Inn.  It had been taken over as an impromptu field hospital, treating casualties from both sides. Today it's returned to its roots as the Old South Mountain Inn.

It is just one of the houses and areas left with ghostly reminders of the battle which once raged there.

South Mountain Magic: Tales of Old Maryland

The Memoirs of Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren

Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren knew all about what the two men had seen that night.  They were her guests.

She lived for most of her life in the South Mountain House, raising her large family within it.  A widow, she had also financed the building of the church just over the way. 

The story of the ghostly battle was just one of her supernatural true stories from her time on South Mountain.  She told it in her book South Mountain Magic.

But it wasn't the only spooky occurrence.  Not by a long shot.  Nor did the apparitions confine themselves to the grounds. 

One evening, her children and servants were left terrified, when they all distinctly heard a horseman ride through from the patio and up the stairs to the second floor. 

Mrs Dahlgren was out at the time, but she was in no doubt that the Civil War soldiers still haunted her property, where so many of them had died.

The Ghostly Campfires of the South Mountain Battlegrounds

The Dahlgren family weren't the only people on South Mountain to encounter spirits.

For years after the battles there, local residents would look out from their homes and spot campfires burning. They would be coming from the vicinity of the old battlegrounds, and no doubt caused some concern of a less supernatural kind while the war was still raging.

But those going to investigate did not find any living soldiers there.  They did, however, find soldiers. 

Confederate and Union alike were seen upon the battlefields.  They moved around their campfires as if still living.  Those intrepid investigators moving close were able to make out great detail, but the figures soon faded.

Then there was just the mist and no campfires burning within.

Book Trailer for Unholy Sabbath

History Books about the Battle of South Mountain

Discover more about the actual events which took place in this corner of Maryland on September 14th 1862.

A Confederate Soldier Confronts Old Man Wise

The corpses were all Rebel scum, why should they have a decent burial?

The fighting on September 14th 1862 was brutal and intense.  When it was over, thousands of men lay dead or wounded upon the hillside, all over South Mountain. 

When the stories of battles are told, it's the glory that people focus upon.  The dead become mere statistics, swamped by the endless analysis of tactics and manoeuvrings.  Who won and who lost? And what was the point of it all?

Yet for those at the time, in those places, the immediate concern is not for battles and wars, but what to do with the casualties lying putrefying in the autumn sun.  Nearly 1000 people died on that day.  Their bodies were still there.

Collecting them up and burying them was not a pleasant task.  It fell to a battalion of the 11th Ohio - Union soldiers - to dig the graves.  It took them four days to do so; and most of that was with the help of a large supply of whiskey.  Drunk was the only way it was bearable.

Local legend states that there was a second channel of help during this time.  The Union soldiers let it be known amongst the populace that they would be paid one dollar for every body buried.  Young men with shovels swarmed ahead, out to make some cash.

Farmer Daniel Wise didn't have to look far.  His cabin had been right in the midst of the carnage. No-one even knew how his simple home was still standing.  It had been blasted by so much ammunition.  But it was not just the woodwork that the bullets and cannon-fire had hit.

There were no less than fifty-eight bodies in his yard.  He had to walk through them to check out all he had left.  But he'd also heard of the dollar rewards and $58 would be a great sum.  It would more than cover the rebuilding.  It would render him relatively rich.

He began his grisly work, dragging corpses closer to his doorstep and piling them high.  He did not dig their graves.  He had a much better idea than that.

Before the battle, Old Man Wise had been busy digging a new well.  It was deep, but not yet at the level of water.  Into the dry well went the bodies, one after another, until all fifty-eight were underground.  Then he piled on top some soil and called the burial done.

He got his money.   He sat on his deck smoking from a new pipe, filled with a generous amount of fresh tobacco.  Just part of his spending spree in town.  Yet as he contemplated all that had happened, all that he'd done, he gradually became aware that he was not alone.

The apparition appeared first in the lane, coming closer, until he was standing on the deck beside Daniel Wise.  The ghostly figure wore grey, the uniform of the Confederacy, and his injuries appeared as dark smudges on his form.  He was transparent and staring right at the old man.

Shaken, Old Man Wise scrambled back from his seat, right up against the shattered cabin wall.  The ghostly rebel spoke plaintively, "I'm most uncomfortable lying on my face.  Turn me over."

Daniel Wise gasped out, "What?!"

The Confederate ghost moaned, "Turn me over!  Please turn me over!"  Then was gone.  Just like that.  No warning, no fading.  He just simply wasn't there.

It was dark in the yard, but Old Man Wise fetched his shovel.  He worked through the night, clambering into the well and heaving the bodies back to the surface.  At the 11th time, he found himself looking into the face of the ghost who'd visited him.  That body had indeed been stacked face down.

The next morning dawned with graves freshly dug.  Each soldier now buried properly and Old Man Wise standing dazed with trauma and exhaustion.

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Was Daniel Wise Framed?

While the well burial and ghost might be a good story, the truth may be stranger than fiction.

The Wise family still maintain that their ancestor was slandered.  He wasn't home that day.  The vanguard of the Union army had passed by and warned them what was coming.  Daniel Wise had led his wife and children to the safety of Mount Carmel Chapel, at the foot of the mountain.

When they returned, it was to find the 11th Ohio burial detail piling corpses into the half-constructed well and the cabin uninhabitable.  They were all roaring drunk.

Old Man Wise was furious, demanding an audience with the general, then asking for recompense for his home and well.  He didn't get it, so continued to make waves, telling all officials who would listen to him what had gone on. 

But the Union went on to win the war, and Ohio state provided several presidents.  A story like this didn't look good when retold.  It made the Federal soldiers look uncivilized.  The Wise family maintain that the altered story came out of Washington DC.  It was much better than the original, so it stuck.

Paranormal Investigation: South Mountain Battlesite

Local ghost-hunters visited the area on the 145th anniversary of the Battle of South Mountain. This is their video report.

Rebel Soldiers Haunting South Mountain

The road appears to run uphill, but that doesn't stop stationary vehicles being pushed up it. It's on the spot where Confederate soldiers battled to secure their cannon.

Burkittsville, Maryland, is more famous now for being the setting of a wholly fictitious ghost story.  It was where the Blair Witch Project was filmed.

Back in 1862, an even more desperate flight through the woods was taking place.  The Confederate soldiers had been over-run. Their only hope was to make for the high ground and hold it. 

But for that they would need their cannon.

It's a long way up South Mountain at Crampton's Gap. The wooded sides are steep and even with a dozen or more men heaving, the mounted cannon was getting stuck.  Worse still was the fact that musket balls flew from their flank, fired by Union soldiers in hot pursuit.

The boys in blue were not encumbered by a heavy cannon on wheels.  They could cut through the undergrowth, gaining ground quickly.

Those in grey uniforms quickly found themselves with a stark, life or death choice.  As their numbers were thinned by comrades hit, those remaining had to let go of the cannon or die.  Some fled into the woodland, others waited too long and were killed with their hands still on the metal frame.

Without anyone there to hold it, the wheeled cannon began rolling backwards.  Those Union soldiers closest to the scene could see it happening and got out of the way quickly.  But those further down the hill were not so lucky. 

Run over by the wildly careering cannon were mostly Confederates too.  They'd been the ones covering the retreat down below, who were now making their way in the wake of their fellows.  The carnage was soon complete.

But it didn't end there.

The first story came from those collecting bodies and storing them in a wagon.  Probably our old friends the 11th Ohio again.  As they moved across the mountainside, the wagon was pulled by horses, but even they needed a rest.

At a particular point, the horses were unhitched from pulling their ghastly cargo.  While they were being watered and fed, a cry went up.  The wagon was still moving!  It inched up the mountainside as if pushed or pulled by unseen hands. 

The story quickly spread that it was the recently dead Confederates, still desperately trying to move their cannon up the hill.  Only the ghosts hadn't realized it had been switched for a wagon; and it's still happening.

Any car parked on the roadside, at that spot near Burkittsville, will find the vehicle being pushed upwards.  Ghosts?  Or a more scientific explanation?

There are some Physics minded people who have claimed that it's all an optical illusion.  The hill appears to go uphill, but really it's sloping downhill, in an effect a little like an Ames Room.  It all sounds rather credible right up until one more question is asked.

Who, or what, leaves fingerprints in the talcum powder sprinkled on the car bumpers of some paranormal investigators?

Spook Hill (Gravity Hill) Near Burkittsville, Maryland

More American Battlefield Hauntings

History knows it as Custer's Last Stand. It was more like Sitting Bull's Last Stand, along with thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho. Are they still holding firm?
Chickamauga Battlefield is the scene of some of the most celebrated ghost stories from the American Civil War. They include a spectral monster.
The Battle of Gettysburg was a pivotal point during the American Civil War. It's been the location of countless ghostly tales ever since.
The Battle of Sharpsburg, aka Antietam, was the bloody start to the Maryland Campaign of the American Civil War. Today it's one of America's most haunted sites.
Updated: 09/12/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 03/10/2013

I found that fascinating too!

Paul on 03/10/2013

The gravity hill is amazing!

JoHarrington on 03/08/2013

I know Naseby well! I've also been up to Marston Moor, which has its fair share of ghost stories too. I mean to eventually write more on the British ones (Culloden is already here), unless you get in first!

Culloden is quite horrific for residual ghosts.

frankbeswick on 03/08/2013

This phenomenon is not unique to American civil war battlefields. In Britain we have had a similar experience at Naseby from the English civil war that was reported in the seventeenth century, and there is an area of Essex where Romans are still seen. Places where traumatic events have happened can be where this sort of replay takes place.

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